WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The State Department, which is facing growing criticism of its policy on private security contractors, overlooked repeated warnings from U.S. diplomats in the field that guards were endangering Iraqi civilians and undermining U.S. efforts to win local support, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Ever since the contractors were granted immunity from Iraqi courts in June 2004 by the U.S.-led occupation authority, diplomats have cautioned that the decision to do so was "a bomb that could go off at any time," said one former U.S. official.
But State Department leadership, unable to field U.S. troops or in-house personnel to guard its team, has clung to an approach that shielded the contractors from criminal liability, in the hope of ensuring continued protection to operate in the violent countryside.
The procedures have come under scrutiny since a shooting Sept. 16 involving contractors for Blackwater USA, the State Department's main security contractor, killed 17 Iraqis and set off a series of U.S. and Iraqi investigations.
On Friday, in a tacit acknowledgment of the policy's shortcomings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered drastic increases in supervision of the security contractors. A day earlier, the House, flatly rejecting the current approach, overwhelmingly approved legislation that for the first time would subject contractors to U.S. criminal law.
The developments and the heightened attention to violence involving security contractors have not surprised current and former officials who have served in Iraq and who have seen incidents that injured Iraqis and destroyed their property.
"It's about time," said Janessa Gans, who was a U.S. official in Iraq for nearly two years, describing her reaction to news that the Iraqi government was threatening to expel Blackwater.
Gans said she had seen heavily armed contract guards frighten Iraqi civilians and destroy their property, and she was shocked that they appeared to have so little accountability and that the Iraqis often found it difficult to obtain justice or compensation.
Several other officials formerly assigned to duty in Iraq agreed to discuss concerns about security procedures but insisted on anonymity because they are still employed by the government and are not authorized to express their views. Some officials who have had similar experiences while at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad declined to describe them out of concern that they could be identified through the details of their accounts.
But their views of Blackwater and other security contractors are at odds with the descriptions in recent weeks by Rice and other top State Department officials, who have praised the guards as providing effective service under dangerous conditions. Blackwater's chief executive noted last week that no U.S. official has been killed under Blackwater.
Nonetheless, concerns have been voiced even by the most senior U.S. officials in Iraq. The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John D. Negroponte, now the deputy secretary of state, had been overheard urging contractors to slow down and take more care as they careered through the streets.
"He was frequently exasperated," Gans said. "He would say, 'Is that necessary?'"
Gans said she complained to high-level embassy officials. Other current and former officials said that the concerns were frequently discussed among embassy staff and were acknowledged by some members of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which oversees contractors for the State Department.
But the complaints and concerns received little high-level attention, for several reasons, said diplomats who served in Iraq. In that crisis atmosphere, the security problems seemed less urgent than other issues. In addition, even staff members who were uneasy with the arrangement were ambivalent because they wanted aggressive protection when they felt personally endangered.
When leaving the gates of the Green Zone, "you want the biggest, meanest guys in the world protecting you," said a U.S. official who served in Baghdad and has been moved to another post in the region.
The private security contractors working for the State Department have operated under murky legal guidelines. While U.S. laws apply to contractors working for the Pentagon, those who work for the State Department do not fall clearly under U.S. or Iraqi law, allowing some to escape punishment for wrongdoing.
Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar, said that while it has been clear that diplomats in the field "have been upset with this," they have felt they had no other choice.
"It's not like there was ever a high-level review of this," he said. U.S. officials in charge "didn't want to make the hard choices. So they outsourced the hard choices."
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.